We have all heard how stress can have a negative impact on our well-being. But how do we manage it when we all know it can’t be avoided. The key is to have an arsenal of tools at your disposal. This is not a one-and-done type of approach. We need to think of stress management as a multi-prong approach where we have multiple tools we can pull from.

Also, it is important to remember that ongoing and regular practice is essential. It will make it easier and more efficient to implement stress management strategies in times of high stress if we have regular practice with them. In other words, it will be much more difficult to implement a stress management technique during times of high stress or crisis if you have never, or rarely used them before. The last thing you need in those times of high stress is learning and figuring out a new strategy to try. 

How to manage stress
Let’s first consider what is happening to our brains in times of high stress:
  1. An event or anticipation of an event triggers our stress response
  2. This activates an automatic reaction in our Amygdala which is where our body’s stress response begins to get triggered.
  3. This in turn activates our HPA Axis where the Hypothalamus, the Pituitary Gland, and the Adrenal Glands get activated.
  4. This chain reaction creates the release of stress hormones:
    • Cortisol,
    • Adrenaline
    • Nor-Adrenaline

These hormones function to prepare us to fight or flee from a dangerous (stressful) situation. (You can learn more how these hormones function in our body here.) However, the stress in our modern world is usually not quickly resolved and this results in complex and prolonged chronic stress responses. This is where we start to run into health issues that impact our physical and mental wellbeing. 

Stress and mental health

In order to manage and reduce the stress response, we need to apply a range of strategies. We need to look at a top-down as well as a bottom-up approach: working with the body as well as the thoughts that are triggering, responding, and maintaining the stress response. The key is to apply a multi-layered approach that works with our physiology, neurobiology, and psychology. In other words, working with the body, the nervous system, and our thoughts to calm the stress response. Doing only one without addressing the other aspects will likely only provide temporary relief at best. When this happens, it may cause us to feel increased stress, frustration, and hopelessness at our inability to manage or “get a grip”. Our perceptions of the stressful situation may be augmented leaving us feeling more overwhelmed by the situation and potentially less likely to try other ways to manage the stress. 

Stress management techniques:

Body – Move your body: Stress needs physical release.

Nervous System – Relaxation: Deep abdominal breathing, meditation, visualization, grounding.

Psychology – Address your negative / worry thoughts: connect with those that can offer emotional and social support. Consider what thoughts are fueling your stress and how you can reframe them.

Diet – Eat foods that reduce inflammation and oxidation. In times of stress, we need to nourish our bodies and brains with foods that support gut and brain health. Let me emphasize, this is foundational to all three prongs of stress management. Diet affects your body, brain, and nervous system. If you are not nourishing yourself (and by that I don’t mean calories but the micro-nutrients your body and brain need), you are walking an uphill battle with stress management.